About 9 p.m. on Monday night, Frankford Elementary Principal Duncan Smith was sitting innocently with his wife in his home when the phone rang. To say the least, it was an unexpected call.
Smith had been invited to attend President George W. Bush’s annual State of the Union address on Tuesday night as a guest of First Lady Laura Bush. He was one of more than 20 guests of the First Lady, who sat in her section in the House of Representatives Chamber during the speech. The speech lasted — with multiple interruptions for applause — just more than an hour.
“I was really shocked,” Smith said. “I couldn’t say no.”
Smith had been invited to symbolize the success of the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB authorization was a theme of Tuesday night’s speech. The now five-year-old act began holding schools, teachers and students accountable for student progress in 2001 by implementing student testing programs and giving local officials more responsibility for educational growth of the students.
Smith and the school were honored with the trip for outstanding achievement through NCLB, despite adversity.
The honor Tuesday night was just another in a long list of honors and awards for Frankford Elementary School, which still performs among the best in the state on annual tests despite a large Hispanic population and the fact that more than 75 percent of its students are classified as low-income.
Frankford has been rewarded with state and federal awards, grants and even a television spot on the U.S. Department of Education show “Education News Parents Can Use.” The episode featuring a profile on the school and a roundtable discussing featuring Smith was to air on Jan. 16.
“We’re doing a lot of good things here,” Smith said. “We have a great staff. It’s nice for them to feel the rewards. It’s nice that other people are noticing.”
Still, despite the regularity in which Frankford Elementary is rewarded for its performance, likely nothing prepared Smith for the call he received Monday night.
On Tuesday, Smith and his wife arrived at the White House about 7 p.m. for a small reception with the other honorees. Some were featured by the president to end his speech. Among them was Dikembe Mutombo — a NBA all-star and current player who grew up in Zaire and has since come to be known for his community service in his home country and in the U.S., and for a famous finger-wag after blocking shots. Also honored was a New York City man who saved another’s life by jumping down onto subway rails to save him.
Just before the start of the 9 p.m. speech, the nearly two dozen honorees left their family members at the White House, jumped into three vans and received a motorcade escort to the Capitol.
“It was really cool,” said Smith, adding that the vans darted at speeds above 60 miles-per-hour through the then-empty street. “The whole street was blocked off just for us.”
Smith remembers talking and walking next to Mutombo, who he called a “very large human being. His feet were longer than the depth of the stairs. He couldn’t get his whole foot on the stairs.” (According to an NBA.com profile on the athlete, he stands 7 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 260 pounds.)
Smith, Mutombo and the others then sat through the president’s speech, the topics of which were evenly distributed between domestic and international issues. After the speech, Smith — along with all of the other honorees — had their picture taken individually with the Bushes.
Smith called Laura Bush a “wonderful person” and “very friendly,” but said he could not understand all of the Texas-born president’s Southern rhetoric.
“(President Bush) said, ‘Dunc: You really put your dog on tonight,’” Smith remembered. “I don’t know what exactly what that means. I assume it was he liked the way that I was dressed. I’m taking it as a compliment.”